The Persona of an Educator

Written by Dr. Matt Bateman on July 17, 2021

Pedagogical Context

Higher Ground’s pedagogy is oriented around helping children develop intellectual independence. This approach is built on the fusion of two important ideas:

  1. Human learning is always a chosen, self-directed cognitive process, where the resulting knowledge is a product of voluntary, sustained intellectual effort.
  2. Human learning is always a process of discovery, where the resulting knowledge is an internalized grasp of an external set of facts.

In Higher Ground’s distinctive approach, education as intellectual independence, both of these ideas are key—that learning is an expression of active agency on the part of the learner, and that learning is fundamentally a process of discovering the world of facts. Knowledge is discovered, not constructed, but that discovery is part of and inseparable from the mental work of each individual.

There is a lot more to say on this pedagogical orientation—see the Core Philosophy section of Montessorium. For our purposes here, it is important to note two contrasts.

Learning, even learning about the arts and humanities, is not primarily a matter of perspective, or of expression, or of opinion. It’s not just expression. For it to be learning, it always involves questions of precision, truth, rightness, facts. Even where there is widespread controversy or irreducible ambiguity, the mind is properly on a quest to know

Conversely, learning, even learning about math and science, is not primarily a matter of content acquisition, even when that content is good. Facts, truth, rightness, and precision are things that can only be grasped by a mind that has reason to exert itself and chooses to do so for that reason. Learning is always motivated, and the particular nature of the motivation shapes what is learned and how. The student’s cognitive process must be respected in the right way if the goal is for her to independently understand the truth of any matter.

Higher Ground’s distinctive approach, education as intellectual independence, is most evident when it comes to how advanced adult political or cultural conclusions are approached in our classrooms. The Higher Ground approach both reflects the view that there are important, knowable facts that add up to certain, definite conclusions about the world, facts which a developing mind should explore and come to understand—and reflects the view that because learning is the product of a cognitive motivation, there is limited value, and often disvalue, in offering a developing mind the conclusions themselves.

Higher Ground’s approach to education is thus knowledge-centric while being non-propagandistic. For a broad range of important personal and political beliefs—even those where we think there are important truths that it would be valuable for children to know—we specifically don’t educate towards specific conclusions or views. Our goal is not to create children with certain views; our goal is to help create children who are able or who will be able to think through these issues intelligently and independently.

This orientation has many important pedagogical implications. Everything from what content is presented to a student, to what training is offered to staff, reflects our pedagogical framework.  

The Persona of the Educator

The purpose of this memo is to note that this framework also has implications for how an educator presents himself or herself. 

If an educator wants to work for a students’ intellectual independence, that implies a certain specific type of professionalism. The educator’s professional identity is that of a guide empowering young life to chart its own path. Unlike, say, an activist, she is not concerned with redirecting students’ directly to causes she believes are important. Her whole being is wrapped up helping her students become independent of her as much as of any other adult, even about (and one could even say especially about) the issues she feels more strongly are important for adults to engage. She has a special focus on and sensitivity to the authenticity and effectiveness of the student’s thinking process.

If a psychotherapist were to use her position of influence to direct a patient to, say, vote for the candidate she believes in, it would be a tremendous breach of trust. Even if the psychotherapist believed that it was in the patients’ interest, it is a misuse of her position to channel a patient’s trust in this way. This is no less true for non-political issues directly relevant to a patient—a therapist should not guide a patient to choose to marry or divorce or take a job, even if she, the therapist, believes it is best. Her professional role is not to be a puppeteer of the vulnerable, but to help patients make their own decisions, now and in the future. The same type of analysis applies to an attorney, or a doctor, or a judge. Particular professions imply particular professional standards.

For an educator who accepts the Higher Ground pedagogy, the service is that of a guide—a mentor—a coach. Core to that is the idea that one’s own particular positions are incidental to the work, and if brought in directly would generally be a distortion or distraction. In literature and movies, we often see a guru or sage or elder work carefully to avoid undue influence, and to instead counsel a developing adult to think independently. We see it in the archetype of a rite of passage, a journey from home, a coming of age. The wisdom in these stories reflects the truth that to grow up is to understand for oneself. 

This standard of service, that we are committed to helping our students achieve intellectual independence, shapes our approach to controversial issues, and must be exemplified by how we as guiding adults express our own adult views to students. Our words and actions should embody our orientation to helping our students become self-directed adults.  

Symbolically, in embracing our identity as educators, we must consider every aspect of our influence. This includes our garb, our email signatures, our profile pictures (insofar as those are prominently visible to students), and more. In all such expressions, we need to avoid the suggestion that we want our students to become advocates of our various views that are controversial and evangelical. Often in life, our goal is to stake out a contentious claim, to add our voices to the mix, to win people over. These are precisely the things that the professional persona of the educator needs to avoid. This includes displays of politically contentious slogans and iconography.

It is an understatement to say that there is nothing wrong with such views. It is a good thing to bring passion and energy to the most salient and divisive questions of the human condition. It is equally good to express such views, indeed to wear our deepest convictions on our sleeves. And it is no surprise that many of our educators do so—indeed, the opposite would be a surprise. Higher Ground’s aims in education are missionary, and we attract missionary-minded educators. This includes purely educational aims, such as fostering a profound and enduring independence in each child, but also more aims directed more broadly towards making the world a better place—politically, spiritually, socially. And these different value orientations are often naturally related. Children constitute humanity’s future, and we want that future to be better—for us, for them, and someday for their children. The same impulse that leads us to care about a cultural or political issue is what draws us to the work of education. 

We love the fact that our guides are culturally and politically active advocates, and infuse their lives with the causes that they regard as critical to human wellbeing. This humanitarianism is a feature and not a bug. 

But we also believe in a particular conception of what it means to be an educator. Precisely because of this context—of being adults who care about the direction of the world—it is important to consider how such personal values relate to our pedagogy. A pedagogy centered on fostering student agency is necessarily narrower than, and necessarily distinct from, the total set of aims that motivate politically and socially concerned adults. 

The point is not to create students who are not socially interested, or culturally active. To the contrary, our pedagogy is grounded in the view that if we help our students become their best adult selves, they will solve world problems in ways we cannot imagine. They will take up the torch in their own way, at their own time—and the world will benefit. As Montessori puts the point:

Education depends on a belief in the power of the child and on a certainty that the child has within himself the capacity to develop into a being that is far superior to us. He will not only be capable of a better way of living but will be the only person who can show us this… We do not thrust our particular creed or ideal upon [children] in order that they may grow to demonstrate it… The duty of educators is to insist before the world on the importance of this source of life; to stand together to make a space in which life can grow, where life can have the necessary conditions, and then have the patience and faith to wait for the result: a better order of life, and beings who are capable of living thus.

Maria Montessori
Child, Society, and World, pp.101

In our role as educators, our profound responsibility is to provide our students with the knowledge, skills, character, and tools they need to live authentic, meaningful, fulfilling lives. 

We are entrusted with the cognitive and developmental health of our students, much as a doctor is entrusted with the physical health of her patient. We must see ourselves in a unique type of role, entrusted to act in a unique way to meet the needs of students.

And we must be at peace with the fact that, as educators, we have chosen to make our contribution to the world in this particular way. In the same way the doctor is willing to treat any patient who shows up at the hospital, because that is her identity and chosen professional obligation, so our obligation is to educate the human potential, and trust in the fact that our students will go on to solve the problems of the day.

A Non-Advocacy Approach

Expanding on the above: there is often the need to deliberately take a non-advocacy approach. This is true even (or especially) for causes that one knows one is right and so advocates in other contexts. As educators, the goal is not to push or even persuade students of a particular position, but rather (if it’s even appropriate to address at all) to facilitate their understanding of the issues and capacity to think it through over the long term.

The non-advocacy principle is grounded in a deep conviction that children properly educated will be able to figure the world out. And they need to: we do more harm than good when we subordinate a child’s general development to a particular, acute need (of the child’s, or of the world generally). This conviction demands that we prioritize development above advocacy, that we accept as a professional obligation to avoid expressing any view that the world is so corrupt, or the truth so inaccessible, that the child we serve is incapable of figuring it out.

In the context of personae, this means a sensitivity to the impact of clothing, slogans, and symbols that suggest an advocacy orientation. There are two concerns with socially contentious slogans and iconography. 

The first and primary concern is the above one: symbols and slogans represent an advocacy stance, rather than an educational one, and this is not a stance we want to adopt, even in minor ways, with our students. An advocacy stance is oriented towards directing another human being to believe something and act in a certain way. (An educational stance is oriented towards directing another human being to think actively and adopt a quest for truth.)

The form that an advocacy stance takes with clothing and digital equivalents is typically the risk of creating mild-to-moderate role model pressure. For students, especially students who are confronting big social issues for the first time, there is a risk that the mere fact an educator advocates a certain view being a persuasive influence as such, as a matter of admiration or imitation rather than real understanding. Students are deeply, passionately interested in what the adult figures in their lives believe is true and good. Their educators, even more so than their parents, represent the outside adult world’s take on things. An educator properly uses that influence for the singular purpose: helping her students become more intellectually independent. Any alternative goal, especially on deeply important issues, risks subordinating the well-being of the student to some other value that the educator happens to hold. 

The second concern, which is derivative but still important, is with parents. Taking a visible advocacy stance on contentious issues is, by its nature and even design, going to conflict with the views of other adults who take different stances. It is going to signal to those adults that we are personally invested in that position. Given that we aim for our schools to serve every child and parent, our parents will naturally have a diversity of (viz. conflicting and competing) views.

Moreover, parents are likely to see controversial political personae as signals of a propagandistic education. They are likely, especially today, to take a symbol as an expression that we intend to coach their students to accept specific ideas. There is a widespread view, unfortunately often justified, that education is about winning the hearts and minds of children to particular causes. Many controversies in education are, in effect, desperate races to have power over what students are exposed to at school. Our goal is to make clear to the parents enrolling in our schools that this is not our approach. We reject at root the idea that education is a form of propaganda, of winning converts, of agreement, and we want to make sure that the people who interact with us see this in practice. We regard it is as critically important to be a beacon of non-advocacy irrespective of any particular controversy, because that position itself is a major way in which our pedagogy is differentiated. 

Even if it isn’t true that a particular symbol represents a guide’s attempt to convince her students that they should believe something, it is reasonable for parents to be concerned that it might. It demonstrates to that extent an unprofessional insensitivity about the distinction between advocacy and education. All of the foregoing is exacerbated by the fact that, as of the writing of this memo, in mid-2020, we live in a politically fragmented culture with widespread hypersensitivity about many cultural issues. This sensitivity is as important to acknowledge as it is unfortunate.

How to Evaluate What is Controversial

An important question is: what counts as a contentious issue? This is particularly important because it is complex:

  • Whether or not something is “controversial” in a relevant way is significantly if not entirely contextualized by culture. In a philosophical sense, every view is controversial, and every position has political implications. But, at least at present, wearing a pin or a t-shirt that represents an American flag, a peace sign, Martin Luther King, that one did or encouraging others to vote, or Abraham Lincoln, are all non-controversial at least in the sense of not being contentious or confrontational. Fifty years ago a peace sign and MLK would have been controversial. 160 years ago Lincoln would have been. 250 years ago an American flag would have been. But these symbols and figures have been culturally assimilated into the American mainstream. (Other countries have their own equivalents. An American flag flying in front of a school in China has a very different meaning than one flying on a flagpole of a New York school, just as including an image of Mao on a display means something very different in the United States than it would in China, where such images are ubiquitous.)
  • Many things that are controversial are not contentious, because there is not the assumption of evangelism about the issues. Many religious views (even many “evangelical” views) are like this. To wear a crucifix necklace, a hijab, or a kippah is to signal that a specific moral-spiritual perspective is personally important, but—again, in today’s culture—it does not come with a presumption of proselytization. For many reasons, such expressions have been normalized and form part of the natural background. 
  • There are borderline issues, where a position is becoming mainstream (as gay marriage did recently) or where one can wear iconography in a less conspicuous or loud way that minimizes its confrontational effect. A “celebrate the police” day today would have a very different meaning now, in 2020, than it would have ten years ago, and we must actively consider this evolving symbolism. As educators, we must always be assessing and re-assessing the evolving expressions of culture, and adapting accordingly. Indeed, part of the reason it is so important to understand the principles at play is precisely that the particulars are not fixed, and require deep consideration. 
  • Just to reiterate, the point here is not that any adult should avoid such controversial symbols in their personal life. To the contrary, the willingness to take a position and publicly identify with causes, to push boundaries and raise awareness, are core to the ways in which we as human beings shape our world. These are important expressions of self and they matter. The point here is that such shaping of opinions is not an appropriate activity for educators to direct towards the children they are charged with nurturing.

For all of these reasons, the boundary of acceptable personae is a complex judgment based on the cultural milieu, and the ways in that milieu that a persona can be reasonably, objectively interpreted. The primary point of this memo is not to attempt to define the boundary, but instead to contend that and to explain why that there is an issue in the first place. An understanding of this perspective is what will allow us to debate, discuss, define, and refine policies. 

The Personal Challenge

As a final point, it is worth noting that one could agree with all of the above in general and still find oneself surprised that it applies to a particular case, particularly a case with which one is strongly sympathetic. There is a legitimate personal challenge here: as missionary educators, we feel strongly that certain ideals are core to who we are, and our activism may be what first drew us to education. At the same time, we understand that our work is not about us, but about the needs of our students, and we must honor that. This can create a type of internal tension worth reflecting on. 

For the person who sincerely adopts and commits to a contentious position, the position becomes part of her ongoing moral perspective, part of what she represents as the truth. It doesn’t feel like “activism”, it doesn’t feel “political”, it doesn’t feel in any way anything other than the common sense of the subject. Though of course, one knows it is contentious in that it is not being widely accepted, it is not easy to experience the division between advocacy and education for the things that one views as true. Even for political issues, the political concern is often not the primary motive.

Someone with a considered pro-life position will view abortion as murder and experience it as obviously reprehensible. Someone with a considered pro-choice position will view restrictions on abortion as reducing women to slavish breeding animals. The point holds for many different views—views on race and gender equality, on the nature of sexuality, on immigration, and so on. (It even holds for some points closer to pedagogy, like a myopic concern with bullying, or the social-economic value of STEM.) From within each position on these issues, the contentiousness and controversy are easier to identify with opposing views than they are with one’s own.

For all of these reasons it is important to practice empathy in thinking about and applying this policy: empathy with one’s students who might not fully understand the issues, empathy with parents or educators in our community who might not agree with views that we care strongly about, and empathy with our educators who have such admirably strong views on social topics of import. 

And it is important to embrace all aspects of one’s identity. Your advocacy matters, it is part of who you are, and it should be nurtured and developed and expressed. Your educational devotion also matters, and it should equally be approached as a matter of integrity. They are both are part of you, just different parts that manifest differently in your life. The goal is not to deny either of them, simply to recognize that the latter—the role of an educator—cannot be subordinated to the former—cultural advocacy—without betraying your responsibility to the children you serve, at least not if you agree with Higher Ground’s pedagogical approach. 

Dr. Matt Bateman

Dr. Matt Bateman earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy in 2012 from the University of Pennsylvania. He taught and continued his research at Franklin and Marshall College in the Department of Psychology, on topics ranging from neuroscience to evolutionary theory to philosophy, before joining the LePort Schools as Director of Curriculum and Pedagogy in 2014.

In 2016, Dr. Matt Bateman became a founding member of Higher Ground Education. He is now Vice President of Pedagogy for Higher Ground and the Executive Director of Montessorium.